By EMILY CHAMMAH
I wouldn’t say that Omar is my best friend, because I like to think we are closer than that, that there is something bringing us together more than any friendship could. While it is true that he is my cousin, I never feel as connected to the others—to Muhammad or Nour or Ahmed or Anais—or even to my older sister, Sousan. They don’t know, for example, that I prefer to drink my orange juice without sugar, that I’d rather eat falafels straight out of a paper cone than smashed inside a pocket of bread.
Omar’s mother and mine are sisters, and every afternoon before our fathers come home from work, they visit in the family’s sitting room with sugary tea and cigarettes. Omar and I sit on the carpeted floor at their feet. We draw pictures of pigeons and kites, or turn the pages of my father’s atlas, making up stories about the kinds of people who live in Greece and Turkey and Japan. For us, everyone is like our parents, drinking thick cups of coffee and praying five times a day. The differences between one people and another are often small and silly—Omar once said that children in Japan only wear yellow shoes and orange socks, and I once said that the women in Greece wear crowns of leaves on top of their hijabs. We roll on the carpet and laugh until our mothers tell us to hush, sending us to the roof, where we try to smoke the cigarettes we’ve pinched from their purses and practice calling our own azans.
Omar and I write each other notes in English, a language our parents cannot read. The letters are too rigid, too angled for them to see properly. My mother doesn’t know the difference between l’s and i’s, and though my father knows a handful of words—hello, thank you, no, yes—he hasn’t tried to sound out letters on a page since he was in school many years ago.
Which is lucky for Omar and me. We can tell stories and share secrets and dreams without the risk of being found out. But our English is weak, we do not know as many words as we do in Arabic, and, because of it, our secrets aren’t really secrets at all.
Hello, sir! My name is Amal. What is your name? I once wrote.
Or, Jordan: the diamond in the desert, which is something I saw the only time my mother and father took me to Amman. We had visited the Citadel and the Roman Theatre and sipped cups of lentil soup from a cart. As we walked back to the bus station, we passed a travel agency whose posters and signs were in English, and I saw the beautiful description written on a postcard. How true, I thought to myself, though when I tugged on the fabric of my mother’s dress to show her, a taxi hit a man crossing the road, and everyone’s attention turned to the old man, his body still, and the driver, standing nearby, holding his head between his hands. A crowd began to form, and a young man selling newspapers covered the body with the day’s news, with King Abdullah waving to all of us from the front page. Now, whenever I bring up that day, my mother shakes her head and says, I swear to God I will never go back to Amman.
Once, Omar wrote, My mother has green eyes and I have brown eyes. But my eyes are brown, not his. His are the color of honey, liquid and warm like molten gold.
Another time: My name is Omar. It is nice to meet you, Miss Amal. This note I keep under my pillow, though sometimes, after Sousan turns out the lights, I like to unfold the square of paper—now soft from all of my handling—and hide it under my pajama top, next to my skin.
Eventually, Omar and I stop spending our afternoons together. We no longer take the long route to the market where we buy mint for our mothers’ tea; we no longer whisper into each other’s ears stories about people from faraway lands.
It is indecent, my mother says. What will the others think?
I say, They will think that we are cousins, that we are friends!
Heat radiates from my cheeks.
No, habibiti, she says, shaking her head. No, they will not. You are a woman now, and he is becoming a man. It isn’t proper for you to be alone with him.
But, Mamma, I—
I don’t finish my sentence, because my chest is pounding and my face is wet.
Sousan adjusts the hijab she’s just wrapped around my head. She curls her arms around my waist, rests her chin on my shoulder.
Don’t worry, Amal. You’re one of us now. He’s just a silly boy.
That’s not true! I say and storm into the bathroom, locking the door behind me. I stare into the mirror, into my own eyes, bloodshot from the tears. My lips are swollen, my stomach churning. Sousan and my mother knock on the door, try to coo me out, but eventually let me be.
How strange it is to rethink your understanding of a person overnight. How strange it is to go to bed a girl, and wake up a woman. How strange it is to feel like everyone around you knows your secrets.
Oh, Amal, what is it that you hope for?
Where, in the whole wide world, would you like to go?
What do you think of when you are alone?
These are the kinds of things I wish Omar would have asked me.
Omar grows, and so do I.
I no longer know, for example, if he plays soccer in the street. I do not know if he prefers meat over chicken, his coffee sweetened or plain. I do not know if he remembers our stories about people in foreign lands, if he looks back on those orange afternoons with the same fondness I do.
I’m not going to say my decision to study English was purely motivated by Omar. It wasn’t, of course. But I will say there was a time when English felt like a secret, a sacred thing only we shared. I will say there was a time when I thought that if I were to study as best as I could, if I were able to speak and write clearly and beautifully in this language so different from my own, that no matter how much we would change or grow apart, Omar and I would still be connected.
Omar’s mother and mine continue to visit every afternoon. I still join them on the carpet, though now I’m the one to make the tea—with sprigs of mint in the summer and velvety ears of sage in the winter. Now, I don’t hide the fact that I know how to hold a cigarette, that I am able to pull a column of smoke through my teeth without coughing.
Where did she learn this? Aunt Hanan asks. She is clever, this one.
I blush, and return to my book.
Is it possible she tells Omar this about me? That I continue to sit at her and my mother’s feet, though instead of reading my father’s atlas, I read Dickens and Wilde and Woolf?
Yes, she is clever. But don’t tell her father about the cigarettes, my mother says.
Or the books.
Aunt Hanan laughs, and so do I.
My father isn’t opposed to my reading; no, not at all. It is more that he doesn’t like me to read something he cannot himself. So, he insists that for every book I bring home, I also find a translation in Arabic, one that he can skim or read along, if he’d like. (Though he doesn’t often like.)
One afternoon, Aunt Hanan walks in overflowing with joy, carrying plates of kunafe and flaky pastries soaked in rosewater.
Omar, she explains, has been given a scholarship to study at the University of Jordan. He is going to study medicine, become a doctor.
We all embrace and sing praises of Omar. Omar, the one with perfect marks, the one with the kind soul, the one with honey eyes.
But where will he live? my mother asks. Not in Mafrag?
My heart falls into my stomach.
What is it, my dear Amal, that you want?
No, no, of course not, Aunt Hanan goes on. They will pay for a dormitory in Amman.
My mother shakes her head. Inshallah he will be safe in that city, she says.
Before Sousan is married and moves to the other side of town, she and Ahmed are able to visit once a week for thirty minutes, alone.
He brings her chocolates.
He brings her small teddy bears.
He stands nervously in the guest sitting room, waiting.
My mother watches when they first greet. They shake hands, lean their bodies close to one another. He hands her flowers, she beams. My mother, holding a wooden spoon, pats me on the small of my back.
Let them be alone, she tells me, nodding toward the door that separates the guest space from our family’s. But be sure to listen.
She turns off the television and returns to the kitchen, where she prepares a tray of snacks and juice.
The thing about Sousan having time alone with her fiancé is this: while they could be kissing or touching, at any moment, anyone—me or my mother—could enter through the sliding door. And, since the front door does not lead to the family’s quarters but to the guests’, my father, scheduled to arrive home any time now, could walk in.
And, if he caught them embracing in any way, it could mean that the wedding would be off, that ties would be severed between the families, that a war might ignite within the clan.
No wonder Ahmed is nervous.
I tell my mother that I’ll keep my ears open, but, to be honest, it doesn’t matter much to me. They’ll be married soon enough, and when we slide the door closed and my mother retreats into the back of the house, all I can think about is the thirty minutes I will have, alone, on the computer.
Both Sousan and I have Facebook accounts, though we’ve had to skew our names so that our identities remain secret. Nowhere on our pages can you find real information about us—the fact that we are sisters, that we are from the Beni Hasan tribe, that we live in Mafrag, that we attend Al al–Bayt University.
Which makes searching for us—or for any of our friends, for that matter—impossible.
Sousan is Sou Sou Jordan (in Arabic letters), and I’m Amëlië Hopë (in English).
Her profile pic is a drawing: an anime-style girl with large brown eyes and a lime green hijab. Mine is a sunset on a beach, with the words, “Waking up to see another day is a blessing. Don’t take it for granted. Make it count and be happy that you’re alive.”
Though we change them regularly.
About a month ago, I found Omar’s page. Omar Khaled (in both Arabic and English), The University of Jordan. He doesn’t have to act with such secrecy, though he doesn’t post much about himself (what he thinks of Amman, if he misses the quiet of Mafrag, etc.).
The day I found his name, my heart seemed to want to beat out of my chest.
I added him, and sent a message in English:
Ya, 3mar, I am your cousin, Amal. We miss you here in Mafrag!
He sent one back:
Hi, my cousin Amal! It is good to hear from you. How is Mafrag?
And that was the end of our conversation.
I wondered whether or not I should have asked him about life in Amman, if I should have been the one to open the doors of communication so that we might write to each other once again. I was nervous, but why should I have been? He is Omar, my closest and one true friend.
Now I have taken to looking at his page, to clicking through his profile pics, waiting for each to load, row by row of tiny little pixels, one at a time.
Omar has sixty-seven pictures. Because our connection is slow, in the thirty minutes I have alone, I’ve only seen nine.
A member of the Barcelona football team whooping in celebration.
The University of Jordan Medical School.
A sun setting behind a minaret.
Prince William and Prince Harry, arms thrown around each other.
A black-and-white photograph of a little boy kicking a soccer ball down an empty street.
The Jordanian flag.
Omar in front of the gates of the university, wearing sunglasses and making a backwards peace sign.
A Barcelona football jersey.
Omar in a red keffiyeh. (This is my favorite, and I linger on it for a few moments until I click to the next picture, which may be why I have only seen a fraction of them.)
Today, I take in a deep breath at the sight of his golden eyes against the red-and-white fabric, and click on.
A platter of mansef.
The Jordanian flag again.
The next takes longer to load than the rest.
From the first little bit that appears, I can tell that this picture was not taken with a phone or found on a website. This picture is old, a photograph that has been scanned onto a computer.
I dig my toes into the carpet and think, Why does that tawny background look so familiar?
At the next pixelated line, I notice white fringe, what looks like a moon of shiny black hair rising out of the blank space.
Off in the kitchen, my mother calls my name.
Ya, Amal! You still listening?
I turn my head to call to her, Yes, Mamma, everything’s okay!, and notice the white fringe of our hand-woven rug, the caramel carpet of our sitting room. Could this photograph have been taken here?
When I look back at the computer, I begin to see Omar’s head, his bright eyes pinching at the corners, his mouth smiling plenty. Next to him seems to be a little girl: me.
My breathing quickens, my knee bounces up and down. While I often grow impatient waiting for Omar’s profile pics to load, nothing compares to this stress welling up inside of me.
Ya, Amal! They have three more minutes. In three minutes, open the door.
Three minutes, three minutes. Is that long enough to load the photograph? I am praying that it is.
Ya, Amal, come and help me gather plates and spoons.
I hesitate, not wanting to leave the computer. I never leave Facebook open, for fear that my parents might look through my messages or posts. And I’d never leave it open on the page of a boy. But this photograph is taking what feels like forever, and so I rush to the kitchen, scramble to grab the tiny plates and spoons as quickly as possible and bring them to the sitting room.
Slow down, girl—there’s no rush! my mother says.
I nod and, with the plates stacked upon a copper tray, head back to the computer.
There, on the screen, is a picture of Omar and me, him in a brown shirt, me in a yellow sweater. We’re about ten years old, sitting on this exact carpet that I rub with my feet, thumbing through my father’s atlas. His eyes look at the camera, but mine look at him, our smiles missing teeth.
Dozens of comments in both Arabic and English drag along the side of the page.
CuTe CuTe. <3 🙂
Awww, she loves youuuuuu.
3mar, you were so sweet…….what happened? :p
ما شاء الله
My mother yells from the kitchen. Amal! Tell them their time is up!
She slowly proceeds into the sitting room, balancing a carafe of coffee, bowls of sugar, and demitasse cups in her hands.
I don’t want to leave this photograph, this memory, this pure, childish happiness, but I don’t want my mother to see. I quickly Like the picture, close the browser, and slide open the door to Sousan and Ahmed.
Alarmed by my force, they jump away from each other on the couch and stand, their faces red.
Excuse me, I say. Coffee.
Oh, Amal, do you ever think of me?
Dear Amal, who is your closest friend?
Tell me: what in the world would you like to see?
The next week, when Sousan and Ahmed visit behind the sliding door, I log onto Facebook.
I have thirty notifications, mostly friends of Omar commenting on the picture that I’ve now brought to the surface of his News Feed.
Oh, sweeeeeeeeet!!! Who is this little girl?
Mosta7eel! This innocent face couldn’t possibly be you.
No it’s him! He’s such a mamma’s boy.
Omar, oh, Omar. You were a ladies’ man even back then!
This last post unsettles me. Does Omar have girlfriends in Amman? Are they foreign students, from America or Europe? Does he go to swanky cafés with velvet cushions and milkshakes, to smoke lemon-and-mint flavored argeela? Has he ever held a girl’s hand, or kissed one on the cheek?
Oh, Omar, what is your life like in the city?
He responds to these comments like this:
hhhhhhhhhhh merci, merci. this is me and my favorite cousin when we were very young and adorable.
Omar, I am sure that you are still adorable.
I have five messages: two from my friend Aliya; one from my cousin Nour; one from Sousan; and one from Omar.
And, upon seeing this, I find that it has become difficult to breathe.
I open the message, which he has composed in formal Arabic.
I saw that you “liked” the photograph of us as children. I hope that posting the picture was not a problem… it is one of many photographs I brought to Amman to remind me of home, and one afternoon when I was studying for exams and feeling quite lonely, I scanned it at the library and made it my profile picture.
I am sorry if the comments my friends have written embarrassed or offended you. If you would prefer, I can delete it.
Your Cousin, Omar
I reread the message several times, trying to decipher some hidden meaning from it. Of all the photographs he could have chosen, he picked one with me.
The front door opens, and I hear my father walk into Sousan and Ahmed’s meeting.
What is this? he yells, and I can’t tell by his tone if he’s serious or joking.
I jump out of my chair and slide open the door to find Ahmed standing, his hands clenched and his jaw tight. Sousan stares, her eyes bouncing between the two men.
My father turns to look at me, and I am frightened by the severe look on his face.
Suddenly, he bursts into laughter.
Ahmed, Ahmed, my boy, I’m just joking. I know you know that I would kill you if you were to touch my Sousan before the wedding.
He wraps his arms around Ahmed and kisses him on the neck.
Sousan then laughs, covering her mouth with the fringed end of her hijab.
My mother touches my back and walks into the room.
Stop threatening the young man, or else he might be too frightened to ever give us grandchildren.
At this, Sousan’s caramel skin turns white.
Yallah, my mother says to me. Get off that computer and help with the coffee.
The computer. Omar. Did she read what he wrote to me? Is that why her right eyebrow floats higher than the left?
My God, why didn’t he write to me in English?
For the next few days, I avoid the computer and immerse myself in my books more than usual. I have been reading Animal Farm, a thin little book, for a week, but cannot focus on the words. Are these animals really talking? Whenever I am alone with my mother, I am convinced that she can hear my heartbeat, that she can feel my nervousness as it radiates out of my fingertips, out of the tops of my ears.
But she never mentions anything, and by the fifth night, after my parents and Sousan have gone to sleep, I decide to log on, to write the letter to Omar I have been reworking in my head, over and over, in Arabic.
It is wonderful to hear from you. Please do not apologize about the photograph… I was so happy to see it as I too often think of those days. Just be sure my father doesn’t hear of it! 🙂
Sousan is getting married to our cousin Ahmed. My father threatened to kill him should he touch her before the wedding… you should have seen the color of his cheeks!
Will you be coming back home for the wedding? I am sure that your mother and father miss you terribly. And I know that my family would love for you to celebrate with us.
I wanted to ask, do you remember how we used to write notes to each other in English? We had such little to say then—I wonder all that we could tell each other now.
God be with you,
My finger hovers over the mouse, and I reread the letter. While I can only hope that Omar is the same Omar who dreamed with me on my parents’ carpet, how can I truly know?
My mother’s voice startles me, and I reflexively click, sending the message off.
Why are you awake? she asks as she walks toward me and the pale green glow of the computer.
Mama, I say, my voice shaking, I couldn’t sleep.
She squints at the screen, trying to make out what it is I’m looking at.
You are going to go blind in this light, girl. Then who will want to marry you? She kisses my forehead and walks to the bathroom.
Go to bed. You don’t want your father catching you chatting with your cousin at this hour of the night.
And at this, I am speechless.
She closes the door, and I shut down the computer, rushing to get into bed before she reemerges.
The next message I receive from Omar is, in fact, in English:
A wedding between Ahmed and Sousan? Mabrook! That is fantastic news. I will be at the party, inshallah. It would be so nice to see you. But poor Ahmed! I would not want to make your father angry.
I do remember writing letters to you. I found one in my photographs. You had written, “Jordan: the diamond in the desert.” !!! Where did you possibly hear this? I will admit that after living in Amman I am beginning to question my love of this country. It seems to me that it is not a diamond at all, but completely desert. Even the sea here is dead!
I am sorry to be negative. I am so overwhelmed with exams that I don’t have much time to enjoy this city. I hope to continue my studies in the UK, but it is only possible if I earn perfect marks.
Have you ever visited Amman? There is a park up on a hill that overlooks the entire city. It is so beautiful, especially at night. Next week, my friend Majdi is celebrating his birthday there, and we’ll eat barbecued meats and play soccer, inshallah. I’ve been looking forward to it since my last exam.
When I first read Omar’s message, my heart drops. They are working him too hard, I think. They should not be putting him through all of this pressure! If he is too stressed, he’ll never get to England to complete his studies!
And then I think about what Omar has written: he wants to leave Jordan.
He wants to leave his family.
He wants to leave me.
I try to compose a response, but cannot.
How strange it is to be able to say so much when you have nothing to say, and then, when you finally have something to say, to be unable to say it.
Oh, Omar, it was so much easier when we were children.
Allah yabarak feek!
I am sorry to hear about the difficulties at the university. Al al-Bayt is very different… here, you receive high marks for being on time for an exam and, in some faculties, professors do not even show up to class!
I think you should come back to Mafrag. Being with your family will remind you of why Jordan really is a diamond in the desert, I promise.
What do you think the people are like in the UK? Do you think they are more like the characters in a Dickens novel? Or in an Austen? Have you read any of these novels? If you go there you must buy me as many books as you can.
Your friend’s birthday celebration sounds so beautiful. I cannot remember the last time I ate barbecued meat.
Every day when I come home from the university, Sousan has a different shade of lipstick on her lips, or a new way to style her hair. She has been doing sit-ups for weeks, and bounces around our living room in front of a Lebanese exercise show.
My aunts are throwing her a party, one at which we will dye our hair with henna, eat platters of sweets, present her with gifts.
My father, he has been told, is forbidden from attending.
What are you going to do? he asks my mother. Kick me out of my own house?
Of course we will, she says in reply.
What am I supposed to eat? Where am I supposed to sleep?
He brings up his hands in surrender.
Surely God doesn’t want me to be homeless!
This causes me to look up from my book.
What if I just sit and read here with Amal? Amal, do you have a copy in Arabic for me?
I nod. Yes, Baba, but you won’t like it.
It’s about pigs who take over a farm.
He raises his face to the ceiling, opens his palms to the sky. My God, what is happening in my home?!
Oh, go to your brother’s house, and leave us women be. You don’t want to hear all the bedroom secrets we are going to tell Sousan!
My mother and I laugh, but both Sousan and my father are silent.
He stands, sighs, and heads out of the house, waving goodbye but not looking back. The door shuts behind him.
Mama! Sousan says.
My dear, it is nothing to be ashamed of. You will have duties as a wife! Yallah, come help me in the kitchen.
Alone once again, I return to my book, though my thoughts drift to Omar. Has he responded to my message? Do I have time to check?
Just as I move toward the computer, Aunt Hanan walks in, her hands full of packages and baklawa.
Oh, my sweet. Help me, please.
I set down my book and take the platters from her hands. She kisses me twice on both cheeks.
Is this in English? she asks, picking up the book. Clever, you.
I smile and lower my head.
Omar wants to complete his studies in England, she says.
Yes, I know, I say.
You do? she looks at me with the same raised eyebrow as my mother.
I feel my face blush.
Sousan and my mother return from the kitchen, their hands full.
Amal! Go make the coffee.
The three of them embrace, offer praises of each other’s desserts.
By the time I brew the coffee and return to the sitting room, the other aunts and cousins have arrived. We hug and kiss over and over, as if it is the last time we will meet.
Soon after, we sit in a crescent around Sousan. Each of us cradles, in our laps, a gift.
A pair of house slippers.
A set of towels embroidered with the words Husband and Wife.
A set of lacy red lingerie.
Sousan’s whole body reddens.
Look, says Aunt Hanan, it’s a perfect match!
Yes, but if he can’t tell where her skin ends and the underwear begins, how will he take it off? my mother asks, her shoulders bent over a brazier of coals.
She brings the hose of the argeela to her lips, drinks the syrupy smoke.
Aunt Hanan nudges Sousan in the ribs. Watch your mother, Sousan—she knows a thing or two about using her mouth.
We erupt with laughter. My mother walks to the kitchen, shaking her head.
I’m not denying a thing! she yells. I’m not denying a thing!
Later, we turn on MBC The Voice for music videos, tie scarves around our hips, and dance. My mother and Aunt Hanan move with such sexiness and ease, as does Nour. Sousan has her eyes closed, dancing in her own world.
I wouldn’t say that I am jealous of Sousan; no, not at all. But when I think about her and Ahmed, I feel a particular loneliness brewing inside my gut. Could marriage, the flood of love Sousan’s experiencing, drown this emptiness?
When Elissa’s “Aa Baly Habibi” comes on, I shimmy my shoulders and sing as loudly as I can: My love, I want to; My love, I want to.
My Amal, what is it that you want?
A week goes by without a response from Omar.
He is busy with his studies, I tell myself.
Sousan does sit-ups at my feet. The wedding is two days away.
You want him to do well, I think, so he can go to England.
Amal, will you miss me?
Sousan stands in front of me, her hands on my knees.
I swallow the lump building in my throat, feel the tears pooling in my eyes.
She dives onto the couch with me, nuzzles her head on my shoulder, laces her fingers into mine.
My mother walks in with glasses of yogurt to find the two of us sniffling.
Oh, my loves.
She wraps her arms around our shoulders, rocks us back and forth with our temples close to one another’s like she did when we were small.
My father joins next, kissing each of us on the tops of our heads.
It is hard to be surrounded by so much love and yet feel so out of place.
By the eve of the wedding, I have yet to hear from Omar.
Surely if he were back in Mafrag, he would have messaged me. Surely Aunt Hanan would have brought him over this afternoon for coffee. Surely I would know he was near. So where is he?
And then I realize: No, of course we didn’t hear from him. It is the day before a wedding! There have been so many details to align and organize before the big day that none of us have had a moment to relax. Omar was being polite, I tell myself, by not announcing his arrival. He wants us to focus our attention on the bride, on the last night we’ll have her in our home. And so I happily join my mother in an orbit around Sousan, painting her nails and combing her hair.
But that evening, after my mother and father and Sousan have turned off the lights and fallen into their beds, I log onto Facebook. Tomorrow, Omar will be there, celebrating with the men. While it is true we will likely not see each other, we will be dancing, singing, celebrating at the exact same moment in adjacent rooms, all in honor of Sousan and Ahmed’s marriage.
I cannot keep my face from smiling.
I have over fifty notifications, and thirteen messages. I pace myself, going through the notifications first. No need to rush, I say. If he’s written you, it will be there. Just be yourself.
A friend from university has tagged me and thirty others in a pic of Queen Rania. The words “Charm. Beauty. Confidence. Queen.” float beside her smiling face. Nearly everyone has commented, offering praises to our royal family. Nour has invited me to play Bubble Witch Saga and CastleVille and Mall World, games I have always wanted to play but which never seem to load on my screen.
I take a deep breath, click on my messages. Several from Nour, Sousan, Aliya. Nothing from Omar.
I go to his profile page, scan through his feed. His last status update was over two weeks ago. No new pictures have been added. And while friends have seemed to write on his wall, he hasn’t as much as Liked any of the posts. Where is he?
I write him a message, hoping that he is online and will reply.
Are you in Mafrag? The wedding is tomorrow!!
Before you go back to Amman, you must come over for coffee. My parents will insist.
After I click Send, I think about the word Love and begin to regret having used it. Am I being too direct? Will he think that, because I mentioned my parents, I want him to formally discuss our relationship with them? (Do we even have a “relationship”?) I sit in the darkness for an hour, reading our correspondence over and over to look for clues, hints that he isn’t really interested in me—that he was just being nice. It can’t be the case, I tell myself. Why would he have said that it would be so nice to see me? And why would he write to me in English? I wait for him, but there is no response. I crawl into bed, unable to sleep. My feet shake under the sheets.
Then I begin to get angry. Why is he ignoring me? Is he trying to torture me? And almost instantly, with these self-centered thoughts, the worst images come to mind: ambulances, a jail cell, the dead man in the road in downtown Amman. If only Omar had stayed here in Mafrag, I think, he would be protected by the clan.
Amal? Are you awake? Sousan asks.
I stop my turning, try to lay quiet, still.
Yes, Sou Sou, I’m awake.
I can’t sleep, she says. I’m too happy to sleep.
After some years, after both Sousan and I have children, children who play at our feet while we sip cigarettes and tea, I’ll think back to this moment, to this last instance when we laid parallel to one another in our beds.
Things are much quieter around our house now that the wedding festivities are over. In some ways, it is a relief; we don’t have any more crafts to complete, any more paper boxes to score and fold, any more makeup or hairstyles to experiment with. But in other ways, there is an aimlessness to our daily activities. It is strange how one can plan an event for months, look forward to something for years, it seems, just to have it end.
My mother tries to occupy her time with little projects, with repairs and hobbies she has been putting off for ages. She has even bought a Learn English Today! workbook, but whenever she tries to read the short paragraphs or copy down the new vocabulary words, she falls asleep with her cheek on her fist, her mouth open. My father, when returning home from work, slumps on a cushion in front of the TV, perpetually flipping through the channels. News reports about protests in Amman flash on the screen, and while these cause my ears to perk up, he seems as uninterested in them as he is in soap operas and American films.
I spend the bulk of my days at the university. It’s not that there is much for me to do there either, but now, with Sousan and Ahmed in their own apartment, our home feels too spacious, too dark. It is as if the building itself is grieving the loss of a loved one.
Except when it is time for afternoon tea. Now, my mother and I have two guests to entertain: Aunt Hanan and Sousan. And, for those few hours, it feels lighter, brighter inside.
Oh, Sou Sou, our bride! my mother says, squeezing Sousan from the side.
Really, habibiti, the wedding was perfect, says Aunt Hanan. And your jewelry is so lovely!
Sousan brings her hand to her chest, fingering one of the delicate gold necklaces Ahmed presented to her at the reception. Each piece is adorned with tiny pink stones clustered to form the shape of a heart.
It was really all I’ve ever wanted, she says.
And this is how it goes. We light cigarettes, and brew sweetened tea, and reminisce over our favorite moments of the party. How Sousan and Ahmed sat on a gilded couch at the front of the room, the two of them radiating happiness. How the women joined hands to form a circle, smiling and dancing and celebrating our beloveds. How, before departing to the men’s party, Ahmed bowed to the crowd and whispered into Sousan’s ear. And how she smiled and floated in a cloud of white toward the center, where we surrounded her and danced, my mother and Aunt Hanan yelling to the beat: Yes! Yes! Sou Sou, yes!
There is a memory of the wedding I have that I do not share with the others. After Sousan joined the women in the circle, she closed her eyes, raised her hands, and shook her hips. At that moment, I thought to myself, Maybe Omar was just kidding around. Maybe he wanted to make his appearance a surprise. And maybe, I thought, when Ahmed reenters the men’s party, Omar will be the one to clap him on the shoulder, to try to sneak a glance into our room. I moved beside my sister and followed her lead; the two of us held hands and danced, each smiling because of a young man in the adjoining reception.
How foolish of me. Omar wasn’t there, I learned the next day, and he still hasn’t written me back.
That night, once Aunt Hanan and Sousan have left, and my mother and father go to sleep, I decide to act. I cannot just wait here, hoping he will show up one day. And so, for the first time, I tell Omar a lie.
Keefik, habibi? We were sorry to hear that you didn’t make it to Sousan and Ahmed’s wedding. It was really so beautiful. But we know how busy you are with your studies. I hope that you are giving yourself at least a little time to relax!
I am writing to tell you that I will be in Amman next Sunday. There is a book I need to buy, one that the stores in Mafrag do not have. Would you be able to meet me for coffee? I do not know the city at all, but if you know of a place near the city center, I will try to find it.
I am restless after sending this, and become careless around the house. I begin to bicker with my mother over the tiniest things, blaming her for my own clumsiness. By the next evening, she suggests that I spend a few nights with Sousan, even though it would mean imposing myself on the newlyweds. I first scoff at the idea, but begin to consider it as I log onto Facebook late that night. Ahmed would not be pleased.
I have one message; it’s from Omar.
My Dear Amal,
It would be an honor to have coffee with you. I cannot believe that you will be here… or that your parents will let you travel alone! They must know how clever you are.
Let’s meet at Jara Café on Rainbow Street, around 1 p.m. It will be wonderful to see you.
I hear my father stirring in his bedroom, and then a particularly violent sneeze. I panic and quickly shut down the computer without logging off or closing any programs and rush to get into my bed. I lay in the darkness for a long while.
The following Sunday, I wake and get myself ready as if I am going to the university. But I have a difficult time deciding what to wear. I put on multiple outfits, look in the mirror disapprovingly, then peel them off and toss them on Sousan’s empty bed. (I don’t want it to be too obvious that I am trying hard, but I am really trying hard!) In the end, I decide to go simple, conservative, with a splash of color: a taupe jilbab, one with shiny brass buttons and a belt that cinches at the waist, a watercolor hijab, and pale pink flats with roses on the toe. I fasten my scarf with pins adorned with tiny fabric roses, and wear the slightest smudge of mascara.
I move through the house quickly, downing my coffee at the sink, and search for something clean and easy—a pastry, a piece of fruit—to grab for the bus.
My mother watches me from the entrance to the kitchen, but I do not notice her presence until she speaks.
What’s the rush?
I drop a spoon.
You look nice.
I avoid eye contact by rummaging through the fridge, where I find an orange.
I have a tutoring session with a first-year, I say. Her English is horrible.
She kisses me on the cheek as I walk past. Be careful, she says. And, here, take some money for lunch. You have to eat more than that!
I had forgotten about the hills in Amman. I knew about them—of course I did—but it was as if my mind didn’t remember that it remembered until I saw them once again. As I walk from the bus station to downtown, I notice how the square white buildings planted onto the steep hillsides appear to be stacked atop one another, how the cedar trees reach like arms toward the sky.
The air is cool and crisp and brighter here than in Mafrag, I think, and I am happy.
In the distance, I can see the Citadel atop the hill to my right, and the Roman Theatre to my left. It’s curious to me how these landmarks look essentially the same as the picture in my mind, but ever so slightly shrunken. While it is true that I have grown, I wonder if, somehow, these images have bloomed in my mind, if they also have grown in the past thirteen years since their roots took hold in my memory.
I pass a string of souvenir shops. Scarves hang from the awnings and, on the sidewalk, postcards sit in spinners. It is then I get the idea to look for the one that says, “Jordan: A Diamond in the Desert,” and give it to Omar during our meeting. He’d think it so funny! I turn the metal rack, looking for the phrase. I see camels and bedouins—it is strange to me that tourists buy these pictures of people who look so much like my family members. There are pictures of Petra and the Dead Sea, places I’ve never been, of the beach at Aqaba and the King and Queen. One postcard says, “Jordanian and proud of it.” Another has a picture of a camel in a niqab and says, “Jordanian Princess.” (When I see this particular card, I cannot tell if I am to laugh or to be offended.) I see the shopkeeper sweeping in the back, and I ask him for help.
He leads me to the selection of English-language postcards. He picks one and hands it to me, but, to my disappointment, it is not the one I want. Instead, it reads, “I’m famous in Amman.” I tell him the phrase again, and he says, This is what I have. What else do you want?
I apologize and leave quickly, a little flustered. Of course, it is silly of me to think that one postcard I saw thirteen years ago would still be there. I cannot even be certain that it is the same shop. As I walk toward the city center, I feel as if all of the shopkeepers—the juice sellers and spice merchants—are watching me. I am grateful when I reach a busier portion of the block, where men and women peruse the stores and vegetables for sale on the side of the road. I check my mobile: I have just over an hour until I am to meet Omar.
Prayer has ended, and people flow out of the mosque and onto the square. I ask a woman in a black abaya if she can direct me to Rainbow Street. She hesitates, and then asks a friend, who speaks so loudly that a pious-looking man nearby can hear, and they all debate for a few minutes which is the best way for me to go.
Could I walk there? I ask.
You could, the man says, but it’s a ways up.
He points to a nearby hill, one that looks as steep as a mountain from where we stand.
Take care, sister, he says.
I begin my ascent. While I am not used to much exercise, it is difficult to tell whether the pounding in my chest is from a lack of stamina, or from the excitement of seeing Omar for the first time in I-cannot-remember-how-long. By the time I reach the first landing, though, I most certainly am out of breath. I pause to get some rest, and turn to see the progress I’ve made, which is much more than I had expected. I can see all of downtown below me: the mosque and the Roman Theatre and the road that leads to the bus station. The Citadel is perched on a hill opposite me, and while I am not quite at its level, I feel elevated, amazed. To think that I took the two-hour bus ride here, by myself, without help or instructions from anyone! My parents would be furious if they knew. But, maybe, after they got over their initial shock and worry, they’d feel pride, confidence in what I am capable of. It is so wonderful to be here, to see these places that I remember from when I was quite young, to be in the same city that Omar lives in. I wonder if he lives nearby, if he buys his vegetables and meat from the market near the mosque, if he has greeted those same people who gave me directions.
At the same time, the thought of my childhood trip and Omar causes a loneliness to creep inside my chest. What if it’s not the same between us?
Dear Amal, why are you afraid?
An ivy-covered path leads me to the next staircase, flanked on both sides by a rose garden. An orange cat lies in the sun, sleeping. Here, I feel like a princess.
Finally, I find myself on Rainbow Street. It is a beautiful street, much cleaner and neater than the city center or Mafrag, and the storefronts all have signage in English: Cantaloupe, Wazzup Dog, Waffle House, Q. The street is less crowded than downtown, and every person is so lovely and chic, I assume they must all be foreign. Two women with flowing blonde hair and high heels walk toward me with ice cream cones. They are so beautiful and stylish, I can hardly stand to be near them. I have never met a foreigner, though I read about them all the time. Here is your chance, I say to myself. Tell them, Hello. But as they approach, I realize that they aren’t speaking English or French, but Arabic. I smile and nod as they pass, but I cannot tell if they can even see me from behind their large sunglasses. I am suddenly very aware of how small I am, how my jilbab—even though belted—hangs shapeless off my frame. I must seem so quaint to them.
The café Omar has suggested is more wonderful than I could have imagined: an open rooftop overlooking downtown, with fountains and tiny tables surrounded by colorful embroidered pillows. A man stands at the front gate, nodding at customers as they walk in. He stares at me for several seconds before asking, Yes?
Excuse me. I am meeting a friend here.
He raises his eyebrows and calls over a waiter. I cannot hear what they are saying. What I can hear, however, is my rural accent, something I never even considered before.
I interrupt: Sorry—can’t I go inside? I am early, but my friend will be here soon.
The waiter leads me to a table, sets down two menus.
He says, I’m sorry, miss, but we only have menus in English.
And this is what I do not have the courage to say in response: That’s no problem, sir. I speak English quite well, actually.
But instead I lower my head, mutter, Okay, under my breath, and study the menu until he leaves.
Omar is late. I read and reread the menu over and over. How I would love to smoke argeela here while I wait, but I know I cannot. For one thing, I do not want to speak to that waiter again and, for another, I could never smoke in a place so open, so public.
When he finally arrives, I am no longer upset or embarrassed. He walks in smiling, with his hands in the pockets of his light grey jeans. His eyes are just the color I remember them to be.
I cannot hide my grin.
We greet each other formally, as if we were strangers and not family. We do not hug or shake hands or touch at all. When we sit, the waiter returns. Omar orders us two glasses of honeydew juice. I try to take slow, steady breaths.
Sorry to keep you waiting, he says, looking directly at me.
I lower my gaze and say, Don’t worry.
But then I decide that it is silly of me to come all the way here to not look at him in the face. This is Omar! The one I think fondly of every day.
I bring my eyes level with his. It’s so nice to see you. When was the last time?
He leans back in his chair and thinks for a moment. I don’t know!
As we sit in awe, marveling over the fact that we are both in Amman together (this is what I’m thinking, at least), silence creeps between us. We begin to look around, chasing each other’s gaze.
After some time, I sigh and say, Wow, this place is really beautiful.
You like it? he asks.
Yes, very much so. Do you come here often?
No, he says. I’ve never been here before. I don’t usually leave the area near the university. I asked a friend to suggest a place where we should meet.
I wonder, Did Omar tell his friend about me?
It is so beautiful here, I say again. We have nothing like this in Mafrag.
To which he laughs. There are many things here that you do not have in Mafrag.
The waiter brings our drinks in etched goblets with long straws.
So lovely! I say, and take a sip. It is syrupy and thick and gets caught in my throat as I try to swallow. I cough for what seems like several moments, and Omar looks at me with concern. His stare makes it even more difficult for me to catch my breath.
Finally, I calm down, and he lightly touches my arm. Are you okay?
I nod my head yes, and try to prevent the tears that have pooled in my eyes from running down my cheeks.
There must be bones in there, he says.
I look at him with confusion. Bones?
He smiles. It’s something my father used to say when we were little. You’ve never heard it before?
No, I say.
Omar pulls a package of cigarettes from his pocket and begins to smoke. I watch his hands, notice the way he holds the cigarette between his third and fourth fingers as opposed to the second and third. When he cups his hand around the flame of the lighter, I see that his fingernails have been chewed to the quick. He is the gentle and bright boy I remember from my childhood, I think, but something is different about him. When he smiles, his eyes no longer pinch at the sides. Strands of gray streak his otherwise black hair. It is then I realize that we’ve forgotten how to be ourselves around each other. It has been too many years, I think, for us to even speak.
But why was it so much easier on Facebook? That felt natural and real.
Can we speak in English? I ask, hoping to lighten the mood, to bring us back to a time when we were close.
He hesitates in Arabic. Amal, I—
Oh, please! Like we did when we were young.
We never spoke, he said. Just passed notes.
Well, let’s speak. I have no one to practice with at home. You must get to speak English all the time here.
Not really, he says, and lights another cigarette. Really, I can’t. I am too embarrassed of my accent.
But, if you want to be a doctor in England, you’ll—
I know, I know, he interrupts me. Please, it is difficult for me now. English makes my brain even more tired than it already is.
I nod, Okay, and drink more honeydew—this time, slowly. I then concentrate on my own hands in my lap. On the tiny lines crisscrossing the tops of my knuckles.
I’m sorry, he says. Please don’t be upset.
I try not to be, but my vision blurs, and tiny droplets of tears fall onto my lap, darkening the fabric of my jilbab in a kind of constellation. I didn’t expect it to be like this.
And it is then I hear Omar say to me, in English: How are you, Miss Amal?
I wipe the tears from my face and smile. His accent is atrocious. I am very well, Mister Omar. And yourself?
I am tired.
I tilt my head to the side. Tired? Are you not happy to see me?
Oh, I am happy to see you. But I am also very tired.
You study too much.
How not enough? You are always studying!
Trust me, he says. Then, Did you find your book?
My book? I ask, nearly forgetting the lie I had written him. Alas, no. The bookseller didn’t have it.
And you came all this way? What a shame!
I shrug. Does he really think it’s a shame?
I am sad when it is time for Omar to return to the university, and me to the bus station. Not because I am going back to Mafrag and will not see him for some time, though that is certainly part of it, but because I am realizing that shared memories aren’t quite enough. I never would have imagined, after all these years, that this person whom I’ve felt so connected to (without as much as exchanging a word!) could be so distant, so lost. I am sorry that I pushed him to speak English, that I held onto this tiny nugget from our childhood for so long. I am sorry that I wasn’t prepared for him to have grown or changed in a way that diverged from my imaginings of him, and that I didn’t know how to respond to it.
I don’t tell him any of this, of course. And so we shake hands and walk our separate ways.
Why do you think we’ve been put on this Earth?
What is it you want most out of life?
Amal, what makes you cry?
Back at our house, my father lies in bed while my mother makes tea. I curl my legs under myself on the couch and light a cigarette.
Amal, habibiti, are you all right?
My mother sets a glass in my hands and sits down beside me.
My dear, please say something.
I look at her, but I don’t know anything I could possibly say.
She leans her head into mine, grabs the back of my neck. We sit like this for some minutes, and I feel her tears mixing with mine.
I’m here, Amal. I’m here when you need me.
After my mother and father go to bed, I log onto Facebook.
I have sixteen messages: three from Nour, six from Sousan, seven from Aliya. These I leave in my inbox, unopened, as I search for Omar’s page. After a minute or so, it loads, looks the same as it usually does. There aren’t any new comments, any new posts on his wall, any evidence of activity at all. I can’t say that I expected there to be, but it saddens me all the same.
There was a time when I didn’t know if Omar remembered me, when I didn’t know if he and I would ever write letters to each other again. I try to go back, to imagine that he and I hadn’t yet become Facebook friends, that I hadn’t found that picture of us when we were children.
Sousan and Ahmed are smiling, sitting nervously in the guest room.
My mother is bumbling around the kitchen, clanking spoons against aluminum pots, preparing coffee for us all.
I click through Omar’s pics for the first time.
Omar in front of the gates of the university, wearing sunglasses and making a backwards peace sign.
A Barcelona football jersey.
Omar in a red keffiyeh.
It was such a beautiful feeling, to have that kind of hope in another person.
Emily Chammah is an assistant editor at American Short Fiction, where she co-organizes The Insider Prize, a contest for incarcerated writers in Texas. She is the creator of the online travel guide Weird and Wonderful Cairo, and works as an immigration paralegal in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.